Last November, we hosted our 15th Salon talk with our friend Fiona Bae after she published her book: Make Break Remix, The Rise of K-STYLE, with Thames & Hudson.
Working between London and Seoul, Fiona Bae runs a communications consulting agency to promote Korean and Asian designers, architects and artists internationally. She also leads communications for Frieze Seoul.
We met Fiona on the RYSE hotel project in Seoul, where we created the brand concept while Fiona led the international PR and marketing effort for the launch in May 2018. The RYSE hotel has redefined the hospitality scene in Seoul, is a landmark project for Marc & Chantal and was instrumental in motivating Fiona to write an account of the transformation of Korea into a global creative powerhouse over the last decade.
K-Style,K-Pop, K-Fashion, K-Drama, K-Beauty are everywhere today, dominating music charts and TV streaming around the planet, collecting the most prestigious accolades in the movie industry, enthralling the imagination of literally billions of youth across the world.
Even for a Korean born such as Fiona, the question begged to be asked. Why? How is that possible that teenagers in London, New York, Paris, Sao Paulo are plastering their bedrooms with posters of idols from a distant foreign culture they had no previous affiliation with. (As a father of two, I can attest that posters are still a thing in the Tik-Tok era).
Sure, there have been Asian icons such as Bruce Lee before or the cohort of anime characters from Astro Boy to Akira, Ghost in the Shell’s Major Motoko Kusanagi and ubiquitous game figures such as Super Mario. Still, as powerful as they are, they feel more like niche cultural genres compared to how mainstream is the recent wave of Korean pop culture.
Although Fiona gives us some answers on the Why, she consciously focuses on the How and the Who. The book offers an immersive dive into Korea’s vibrant creative scene with interviews of eighteen tastemakers shaping K-style across various creative sectors. Through their eyes and voices, we are getting behind the scene access to the forces involved in the success of power acts such as Black Pink and BTS, and who are still working to shape the future of K-Power.
As Fiona was launching her book in London last September, at the same time as the “Hallyu! The Korean Wave” exhibition opening at the V&A, I made a point to be in London at the time. As we were catching up over dinner with Fiona and graphic designer Na Kim, who both designed Fiona’s book and the visual identity of the V&A exhibition, we were discussing the history of the so-called Korean wave. I casually mentioned the well-known planning by the Korean government, a brilliant demonstration of how to build fast soft power. I was greeted by a friendly but firm salvo of rebuttal. Yes, the government did invest in the creative and entertainment industry, but the runaway success was very much the fruit of individuals and groups of talents with a strong will to make it on their terms. I had been drinking the cool-aid. Sitting corrected, I was quickly re-educated.
An answer already lies in the book’s title: “Make, Break, Remix”. It describes the bold attitude of this new generation of creators, ready to make things on their terms, break the rules of tradition, and with no inhibition, remix all sources of inspiration gathered from their online browsing and globe-trotting travels. This is a mantra equally embraced by their counterparts worldwide but exercised in a context apart from most developed countries.
As a quick reminder, South Korea was formed in 1948, after being annexed by Japan between 1910 and 1945, fought a bloody fratricide war with the Socialist North from 1950 to 1953, and endured a brutal military dictatorship until the late 70s. Still, in a state of war with North Korea, it has learned to live under constant existential threat to this day, a threat heightened by the current runs of North Korea toward nuclear power.
When strolling the bubbly and animated back streets of Seoul, I routinely have to remind myself that the DMZ zone is not even 30 Kilometres away from the city centre… It is often quickly and casually brushed away when approaching the subject with Korean friends. Not something to dwell on, how could you? Life must exist alongside that monumental doom.
And yet, I remember that I already felt this boldness and bravado on my first visits to Korea in the early Nineties. Fiona confessed that for her generation, this yearning for recognition was deeply rooted in insecurity. A small, young nation, pressured between regional and global superpowers.
The following decades brought remarkable growth and transformation based on an economy of massive exportation and a culture increasingly open to Western ideas. South Korea had no choice but to look outward to find its place in the world.
Today, Fiona observes a new confidence and boldness in the Millennial and GenZ generations of creators. Fuelled by the digital revolution, they integrate technology and global trends with an unbridled “Can do” attitude. And their relationship with the Western world has evolved compared to their older counterparts. While studying design and arts in New York or London was a must 15 years ago, most GenZ are happily passing on such education and starting their path to creative success directly from Korea. After all, the like of Liam Kim, founders of the 1 Million Dance Studio, are now routinely solicited to come and work for the hottest American acts. Her iconic choreographies for Black Pink and BTS are now very much in demand in Los Angeles and New York.
Most of the book is set against the backdrop of Seoul, vividly illustrated by six distinct photo essays from celebrated photographer less_TAEKYUN KIM. Seoul is vast and spread out. A heteroclite urban jungle running through a hilly landscape where gritty greyness is intertwined with the colourful charms of a collection of smaller neighbourhoods, each with its very own personality
Bold, edgy, and intricate, it is easy to feel how the texture of the city rubs on the characters that inhabit it. “Seoul is melted into my album” says former K-pop idol Lil Kim about her breakaway and adventurous latest musical release.
Fiona offers us a gallery of 18 diverse portraits, comprised of some of the most talented movers and shakers, hard at work in creating the next trend that might take the world by storm.
One of them actually opted out of Seoul’s rat race and decided to relocate to the quieter Jeju island with his family, joining a budding community of like-minded creatives seeking an alternative to city life. Artist and designer Kwangho Lee described himself as “Korean to the bone”. Born and raised in the countryside neighbouring Seoul, he moved closer to nature and looked inward for inspiration. His weaved furniture series, made of upcycled materials such as water hoses, is a testament to his creative attitude. Absorbed by the process inherent to craftmanship, this combination of mundane material and painstaking process reflects his search for uniqueness: Creating something you won’t see in every coffee shop of trendy Seongsu-dong district, just because it’s too damn hard to manufacture…
At the cross-section of art and design, his work stands out boldly and with a “Korean attitude” that is not obviously referencing a particular tradition or heritage. Beyond Korean or Western influences, he found freedom, tracing his own path with confidence and a renewed sense of purpose.
Mirroring Kwangho Lee experience is the creative duo behind the streetwear label IISE. Brothers Kevin and Terence Kim originally ailed from New York and represent this Korean American generation born and raised abroad, who came back to Korea in search of success. Marc & Chantal is familiar with IISE as we worked alongside them on the RYSE hotel project, for which they created a whole collection of uniforms, desirable hoodie bathrobes for the guests, and an exclusive branded line of apparel made available to the public at the Workout select store, within the hotel.
IISE translates as “2nd generation” and speaks to the brand’s core concept, interpreting traditional and modern Korean culture into a new urban language. Kevin and Terence acknowledge that they are “foreigners living in Korea”. When they arrived in Seoul in 2012, they soaked up the culture and reinterpreted traditional elements into their design. Their debut collection of bags incorporated naturally dyed Korean fabrics, shapes inspired by the Buddhist monk’s strapless bags, and drawer handles from traditional Korean furniture. “It was a very copy-and-paste method, but executed in a new way”, they confess.
With time they turned away their gaze from tradition to current forms of expression within Korean society. Observations of fiery protest clashes between riot police and protesters fuelled the inspiration for a challenging streetwear collection, blending the military-style outfit and gears of both the police forces and the protesters. Recently, they celebrated the most stylish people in Seoul: The delivery carrier guys on their bicycles. “They are the backbone of the blue-collar labour force, and the city cannot run without these people.” The workwear style makes a collection fit for an imaginary Futuropolis: Seoul / New York / Los Angeles circa 2050.
Another gem in this patchwork of individualities is singer-composer Lim Kim. Originally trained in one of the major entertainment labels, she parted ways and took a three years hiatus to reinvent herself. The result was an assertive and bold newfound persona and an avant-garde pop album, Generasian, a counterpoint to the mainstream image and music she was submitting to in her debut carrier.
Breaking all stereotypes, the leading single, “Yellow” is an anthem for Asian female empowerment, with lyrics telling her story of breaking free and away.
“Cold blooded gal
Boss blood in my bones
Make it loud; your inner voice
Make it loud; your inner voice
Wild storm, can’t keep out calm
I’m the yellow killa”
The message resonated with a new fan-based yearning to rebel against the grind of conformity and commercialism.
“I don’t look like someone who will swear. And it brings a twist when I say something aggressive. A fragile-looking woman can also have a strong voice inside her.”
In her interview, Lim Kim also reflects on the influence of deeply rooted Korean idiosyncrasies, such as Shamanism. “We are full of spirit and love singing and dancing. “Fusion” is a keyword of Shamanism (and…) K-pop is also a fusion of all genres.” Such natural ability to embrace the old and the new, the foreign and the indigenous, is a key characteristic of K-Style. “Whether it’s natural or not, correct or not, we remix and make it work”, she punctuates.
Like many of the creators in the book, Lil Kim operates on the fringe of the mainstream wave. She turned the table on mass K-pop culture and used her power to create an icon of appealing subversion.
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Rebellion against the imposed normality of a repressive social system is a common thread throughout the tales of those daring trailblazers. From groundbreaking drag-queen Nana Youngron Kim, to world-famous tattoo artist Doy to supermodel Xu Meen, each of those individual is at the source of a fascination set to endure. As Fiona Bae said in our Salon talk, “K-Style is both exotic and familiar”. Maybe this is why a global youth is indeed enthralled with anything Korean.
Thank you for reading our latest Le Salon article. We hope you find this exploration of the power of K-Style insightful. To read more from us, make sure to take a look at our previous Insight articles and subscribe to our newsletter.